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Iran foreign minister says hopes U.S. "hikers" will be freed

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s foreign minister said on Saturday he hoped two Americans jailed for more than two years on spying charges would be freed, the most positive signal yet that their ordeal may soon end.

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal are awaiting a verdict from what was supposed to have been the last day of their trial last Sunday. They pleaded not guilty to spying charges after they were arrested on July 31, 2009 near Iran’s border with Iraq.

“The judicial case of these American nationals is following its course. We hope their trial will advance in a way that would lead to their freedom,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told a news conference in Tehran, according to the students’ news agency ISNA.

“We thank the judiciary for treating the issue with justice and fairness. The people at the judiciary will communicate about this issue at the appropriate time.”

Along with a third American, Sarah Shourd, who was released on bail in September and returned to the United States, Bauer and Fattal say they were hiking in the mountains of Iraq and if they crossed the unmarked border into Iran it was by mistake.

Their lawyer, Masoud Shafiee, said he expected a verdict within a week of the hearing.

Spying can be punishable by death in Iran but Shafiee has said there is no evidence against his clients and even if found guilty of illegally entering Iran they should be freed due to time already served.

In an interview on the website, Shourd says she believes the case has become a “tug of war” between Iran and the United States, which have been enemies since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah.

(Reporting by Mitra Amiri; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

This story corrects the reference to “more than two years” in lede paragraph